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Nissim Ezekiel - A Soul in Search
|by K.S. Subramanian|
When I was in Mumbai in the 70-80s I had haunted the Irani joint often with friends in the evenings; I had dabbled in poetry too (quite a sizeable number by then) but never chanced to see a greying man mulling over his long sojourn in the city and his journey with poetry. I had heard of course of him when Indian English poetry had grown considerably though the books of poets could not even be seen on roadside book shops. I knew also he had a cubicle in Bombay University, met poets and read poetry, and generally been dismissive of whatever he read. If I had known he was what he was I would have opened a chat with him even if he was not that receptive to it. He was Nissim Ezekiel.
Nissim expectedly had a troubled college stint because of his racial roots as the impact of Holocaust and World War II had rubbed off on the fellow students of his time. Most of the Jews had left and numerically they were too small in Bombay. His roots were strong in the city and he belonged to it emotionally. Howsoever put off as he was in the late 50s of slums where migrants settled he knew the city had its undying glamour and opportunities for those coming through the gateway. He felt like a native in a cosmopolitan, colourful city though it was being weakened from inside by growing parochialism. His “Time to change” brings out all these complexities in a tenor of simplicity. Take these lines in his “Background, casually”
Unlike Naipaul who saw India as a distant past of his Nissim was very much a part of India and felt deeply Indian. He knew the country had its complexities inherited from history but tried to understand it with a lot of empathy and compassion. Somehow there is not an element of despair or disillusionment in his poetry though someone in his position could have made a song and dance about rootlessness. His stay in London only reinforced his belief that he belonged to India, especially Mumbai.
It is in poems such as ‘Island’, Poet, Bird, Philosopher or Minority Poem that he is at his best. In Poet, Bird, Philosopher he sees a kindred spirit uniting the three. Expressions such as you have to visit “deserted lanes and the source where the river flows in silence” groove around the fundamental idea that the secret of love and harmony is something the spirit feels but brain loses. And poet always “never spoke before his spirit moved.” For this you have to explore higher levels of attainment which only the poet, bird or philosopher can. If you have understood this then poems such as - Minority or Philosophy – become easier to grasp. And these lines will say more than one can by way of summarizing.
That, I suppose, sums up what Nissim is all about.
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